An emergency funding request by Athens Transit is prompting a discussion on whether Athens-Clarke County should reinstate bus fares in order to expand service or stay fare-free.
ACC received $7.1 million in COVID-19 relief for transit from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, allowing the mayor and commission to use federal funds instead of local tax dollars to fund Athens Transit in the current fiscal 2022 budget, and to continue the fare-free policy instituted at the start of the pandemic so that passengers could board through the rear door, protecting drivers from anyone spreading the virus. TSPLOST 2022, the transportation sales tax approved by voters in May, will provide funding to continue fare-free transit—a longstanding policy goal of many commissioners—once ARPA funding runs out.
But the funding request calls into question whether transit should remain fare-free. Without farebox revenue, Athens Transit will not be able to expand service or match federal grants, according to a memo from director Ryan Solchenberger.
“I really would like to focus on quality of service,” Commissioner Russell Edwards said at the Aug. 16 agenda-setting meeting. “I’m really not convinced the fare-free model has gotten us where we want to go. Great, it’s fare-free, but what good is it if I have to wait 45 minutes to get on the bus? I’m interested in ways to increase the quality of service, the frequency of service. I think that’s really how we’re going to drive ridership.”
Manager Blaine Williams said the commission will have a work session on the issue in November or December, after the county government provides opportunities for public input.
The request for $225,000 is to help Athens Transit bridge the gap between July 1, the start of the ACC government’s fiscal year, and Oct. 1, when the federal government’s fiscal year begins.
Commissioners also discussed lowering the threshold for a quorum from seven of 10 commissioners to six. Apparently, on several occasions the rest of the commission has had to wait on late or absent members in order to start meetings, particularly executive sessions. Commissioners split, with some saying that the late or absent members have an obligation to show up, while others said that three commissioners should not be able to hold the rest hostage. That issue will not come up for a final vote until October.
In addition, the commission discussed several zoning items, including a 271-townhouse development on 66 acres off Olympic Drive, an industrial-zoned part of East Athens, which was tabled at the Aug. 2 voting meeting. The ACC Planning Commission unanimously recommended denying a rezoning request to multifamily, citing the lack of transit access and commercial development in the area, and concerns about placing residential development among industrial uses.
However, county commissioners seemed open to the development because Commissioner Mariah Parker said they are facilitating negotiations between the developer, Mill Creek Residential, and the East Athens Development Corp. to provide affordable housing at a different site, because Olympic Drive is “not ideal” for affordable housing due to the lack of transit or walkability. However, there are obstacles: ACC’s new inclusionary zoning ordinance allows developers to make a payment to an affordable housing trust fund in lieu of building affordable housing onsite, but only for developments in the downtown commercial zone. “We’ll see what happens between now and the voting meeting,” Parker said.
ACC Attorney Judd Drake raised concerns about such a deal being an illegal “quid pro quo” because the county approached the developer and not the other way around, as well as earmarking funds for a specific nonprofit rather than opening it up for proposals. “I strongly feel the commission should proceed with caution in this area,” Drake said. An “assuredly legal” way to provide affordable housing as part of the development would be to set aside the taxes it generates for that purpose, Williams suggested.
On a controversial proposal to turn a West Hancock Avenue office building into a fraternity house, Commissioner Melissa Link said the fraternity is meeting with Cobbham residents about their concerns within the next couple of weeks. That proposal, also tabled earlier this month, is scheduled for a Sept. 6 vote.
A subdivision off Lexington Road across from Southeast Clarke Park was opposed by nearby East Hampton residents, mainly over traffic and density concerns. Applicant Carter Engineering asked for a rezoning to build houses on quarter-acre rather than half-acre lots. The planning commission voted 6–1 to recommend approval, although the planning staff recommended denial because the development lacks a binding site plan.
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